Welcome to Directed Viewing, the weekly series where I take a look at a director’s filmography—one movie at a time. If you haven’t been following along so far, you can find a big explanation of the whys and wherefores on the handy table of contents I built just for that purpose, including links to all the prior seasons.
We’ve been working on the filmography of Danish director Lars von Trier for some time now, and I feel like I can firmly say that we’re out of the early period of von Trier’s career heading into today. Chunking up a director’s work into blocks is always a concept that’s fraught with peril, but thankfully von Trier goes out of his way to often group his own films into loose thematic trilogies, so in this case much of our work is done for us.
Today’s movie, then, is the start of the ‘Golden Heart Trilogy’, which includes Breaking the Waves, The Idiots, and Dancer in the Dark. Like all of his work, the movies aren’t actually connected, just linked up by theme or by von Trier’s associative madness. So I’m mostly going to approach each film individually, and then link them where I see fit. So, as you might expect, you’ll probably see far more of those links in movie three than movie one. At the time of writing, I haven’t even seen the other two movies yet! And that’s mostly intentional, as I’m trying to replicate the experience of seeing and writing about the movies as I would have originally upon their release as much as possible. While I like doing the connecting, I think that works better in retrospect than it does trying to do it at the time, especially for a director who is still growing and making movies.
Breaking the Waves (1996)
Bess McNeill (Emily Watson) is a young woman living in the Scottish foothills. She’s part of a conservative, Calvanist village, and something of the adoptive daughter of the church and the town elders. As the movie opens, she’s explaining to them, as she would a disapproving parent, that she’s fallen in love with an outside—a Norwegian by the name of Jan (Stellan Skarsgård), an oil rigger who meets none of the usual criteria that the community would look for. He’s too foreign, too rebellious, and most importantly far too old for the sheltered Bess. But with impassioned pleas, she makes her case, and with plenty of reservation the community offers her their blessing, so long as they can meet this mystery man first.
Breaking the Waves is a strange intimate epic of a film, a long lengthy look at the life of its heroine from this moment forward, presented in chapters. What’s most interesting about it is that even for a von Trier film it implies far more than it says, content to settle into Bess’ idyllic Scottish home. Set in the 1970s, it’s a world so far removed from civilization that it might as well be another planet, one of endless fields and quiet days spent in solitude and reflection. Which makes it the perfect setting for what becomes a complicated reflection on faith, sexuality, and gender. I said a few weeks ago that I felt that von Trier caught a thematic bug when he made his adaptation of Medea, and this film is the first in a string of movies that come to explore much of the same material.
Bess is something of an enigma at first. She’s disarmingly charming, frighteningly naive, and weirdly removed from everyone else. The entire town treats her both like a kid sister and a bit like the town crazy. She doesn’t particularly seem unstable, mostly living modestly with her mother and spending her time volunteering to clean and tend to the church. But it’s here that we begin to get a peek behind that veneer. While she works at the church, she is in constant dialog with god through prayer, which is in and of itself not particularly strange, but she also answers herself in an affected deep voice that is supposed to be the Voice of God answering her, a constant back and forth she seems to be aware enough of to not let anyone eavesdrop upon. And through those dialogues she seems even more childlike than one might expect, someone who relies upon her faith and this voice to make almost all of her decisions.
I’ve read in more than one place interpretations that she’s learning disabled, though I don’t know if that’s necessarily true. She claims time and again to not be smart, but her upbringing is so sheltered that it’s hard to say. All of the other village women are domestic types, too, married and making babies and generally not doing anything that would upset the fine traditional Calvinist upbringing, so it’s impossible to tell if she simply has delusions or if it’s a greater problem. Certainly it’s well hidden, and it explains how someone like Jan could get ensnared into a situation much more complicated than he ever could have expected.
When Jan finally shows up and the wedding takes place, the two consummate the marriage as one might expect. Bess, seemingly completely unaware of what sex is other than something that God disapproves of if it happens before marriage, realizes on the other side of that wedding night that this is something amazing that had been kept from her. For the rest of their honeymoon, Jan and Bess go at it like rabbits, not to put too fine a point on it, and they seem both incredibly in love and lust with each other.
Bess’ awakening into sexual maturity, however, is interrupted when Jan has to go back out to the oil rig for a time, leaving Bess to wait for him. Bess seems to treat this as an event just short of the apocalypse, throwing tantrums and generally plunging into a depression. Now that she’s found her man, he’s leaving her, and she seemingly has no way to cope with the idea of the loss. He eventually is dragged away by his coworkers, looking forlornly at a sobbing Bess, left to seemingly whittle away the weeks in self-enforced spinsterhood.
It’s here that she dives back into her faith, but with an edge of accusation that colors all of her perceptions. Her conversations with God get nearly combative, as she laments that she was taught to wait for a man to love, and now that she has him she’s somehow expected to endure more suffering. And the replies get increasingly antagonistic, this ‘God’ replying that she is being selfish, that she’s putting her wants before those that are decreed by the universe. Does she want her husband so badly that she’d forsake her beliefs to get what she wants? Bess answers yes, she would rather have Jan than God.
The very next day, when Jan is out on the oil rig, an accident occurs and he’s seriously injured by a falling piece of equipment. Rushed to the hospital, Jan is delivered to Bess a broken man, paralyzed and barely kept alive with respirators, with only a dim hope of any sort of recovery. Bess, realizing what she’s done, has decided that if this is what God has given her then she’ll simply have to make the most of it, and invests in Jan’s care as if he was the new object of worship. In fact, the few times she remembers to pray at this point, there’s no answer. Whatever God she heard in her head has abandoned her to this new domestic form of worship.
Jan wakes up, deep in his own feelings of depression and inadequacy. He urges Bess to go find another man, someone who can be a good husband to her, someone who isn’t doomed to lie in a hospital bed for the rest of his life. The very idea is beyond Bess’ comprehension, and thus she tends to him all the more zealously, Jan’s complains growing more and more embittered until he finally decides the only way to get her to get over him is to push her into realizing the potential she could have elsewhere. He tells her that he wants her to sleep with other men, then come back and tell him, so that he can live vicariously through it. Whether that’s true, or whether he simply wants to give her permission to leave, it’s hard to say. But the affect is clear to Bess: this fevered demand to her is a commandment, and not to be disobeyed.
Bess’ attempts, then, constitute a continual debasement. She starts by trying to make up encounters, but Jan clearly sees through her, and put to the spot goes into actually doing things. All this as Jan’s condition deteriorates, and he slips into a coma. Bess, believing that she didn’t have conviction enough to save her husband when he asked her, descends into full prostitution, doing anything with anyone who wants it, to the point where she ends up endangering herself by attracting the attention of sexual predators (including a sadist played by, you guessed it, Udo Kier). By the time anyone else realizes what’s going on, it’s nearly too late, and most of the community is far too conservative to even consider helping someone who does the things she admits to doing.
Breaking the Waves is an uncomfortable movie for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the sympathy with which von Trier represents this eventual deterioration. It’s the kind of thing that could feel really exploitative in the hands of a lesser director, but here you never get that sense. In fact, the film’s sympathies are entirely with Bess, never quite in her head space but always lurking nearby, listening in the same way her supposed God figure is supposed to be. And when she crosses the line from behavior we can relate to (no matter how dimly) to truly objectionable behavior, we pull away even as the God of the story does, as culpable in abandoning her as the townsfolk and the faith that she so foolishly placed in the wrong hands.
A lot of von Trier’s works deal with faith, explicitly different from religion in that it’s always personal and often removed from normal perceptions of dogma or prescribed morality. But Breaking the Waves seems the most heartbroken of all the movies I’ve seen so far about the burden one takes up by having faith, be it in a god who creates a social situation where she has no options and such a dim view of the world it’s impossible to tell if she’s mentally ill or actually disabled. The Calvinist God brought her that, with it’s systemic oppression of women. Or maybe it’s the mortal Jan-God, who in his desperation and delirium offered her up to a world she couldn’t hope to be able to navigate, sacrificing all the good in her on something as dim as his assumptions about her sexual needs.
Breaking the Waves is a decidedly unpleasant film, but unlike something like Antichrist that deals with these themes of how much a person can take before their belief turns on them, Breaking the Waves doesn’t present its horrors through graphic imagery, but instead the ease with which even normal situations can derail into madness and suffering the likes of which none of us hope to ever know. It’s not that there’s evil in the world, it’s that good intentions can often create lifetimes of suffering while nobody is even paying attention. And it’s that easy, almost lazy descent that haunts me after watching it. There but for the grace of a God stronger than Bess’ go I, or all of us, but we never know if that’s true or not until we see ourselves slipping, too late to pull back from the abyss.